Bush's War on the Press
What's more, for journalists to admit they are being deceived, or even manipulated, contradicts their sense of self-importance as "players" in a perpetual game of good governance. To read ABC News's "The Note"--which has developed into a kind of Pravda for the "Gang of 500" who cover national politics every day--is to enter a world in which the President and his advisers are treated in a manner not unlike the way US Weekly treats "Brad and Jen." Its affectionate tone speaks, too, to Washington reporters' coziness with the subjects they're ostensibly covering, their sources. McCurry notes that unnamed sources are such a problem today in part because reporters are frequently more eager to grant anonymity than officials are to demand it. "I have had probably thousands of conversations with reporters in twenty-five years as a press secretary, and I'd say 80 percent of the time I am offered anonymity and background rather than asking for it. I rarely have to ask for it and don't ask for it because I prefer to keep on the record as often as I can."
While individual reporters and even news organizations are undoubtedly vulnerable to White House retaliation if they refuse to play ball--former White House officials spoke openly of their desire to punish CBS and Dan Rather--if these organizations were to unite on behalf of their constitutional charge and collective dignity, they would likely find a White House that knows when it's beaten. Alas, reporters, like Democrats and cats, are maddeningly hard to organize. When some recently tried to map out a collective response to the White House's secrecy obsession, it got few takers. Knight-Ridder reporter Ron Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents' Association, walked out of an anonymous briefing last term to be followed by exactly no one. Len Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, has ruled out the possibility of participation in any such action. "We just don't believe in unified action," he explained in a note to former Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser, "and would find a discussion aimed at reaching agreement with others on 'practicable steps' or even agreement on when not to agree to various ground rules uncomfortable and unworkable."
The net result of this one-sided battle is the de jure destruction of the balance that has characterized the American political system since the modern, nonpartisan media began to emerge a century ago. And unless journalists find a way to fight back for the honor, dignity and, ultimately, effectiveness of their profession, the press's role in American democracy and society will continue to diminish accordingly, to the disadvantage of all our citizens. Bush adviser Karen Hughes has explained, "We don't see there being any penalty from the voters for ignoring the mainstream press." And there's been none to date. Speaking to Salon's Eric Boehlert, Ron Suskind outlined what he sees as the ultimate aim of the Administration upon which he has reported so effectively. "Republicans have a clear, agreed-upon plan how to diminish the mainstream press," he warns. "For them, essentially the way to handle the press is the same as how to handle the federal government; you starve the beast. When it's in a weakened and undernourished condition, then you're able to effect a variety of subtle partisan and political attacks."
"Two cheers for democracy," wrote E.M. Forster, "one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism." But the aim of the Bush offensive against the press is to do just the opposite; to insure, as far as possible, that only one voice is heard and that no criticism is sanctioned. The press may be the battleground, but the target is democracy itself.